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Was it the women who cost the Tories an overall majority?

October 3rd, 2011

Do the blues have a long-term problem?

There is currently a great deal of speculation that the Conservatives are failing to appeal to women voters and the party will suffer electorally because of this. Tories are right to be worried about the gender gap, but not necessarily about what has happened since the last general election.

At the general election, the Conservatives enjoyed a 10 point lead over Labour among men (38% to 28%), but only a 5 point lead among women (36% vs. 31%).

Indeed, it was Cameron’s failure to do better among female voters that explains a large part of the Tories’ failure to secure an outright majority.

If we take the average voting intentions among those certain to vote from Ipsos MORI’s last three monthly surveys, we find that 34% of men intend to vote Conservative but so do 33% of women. Not a statistical difference. In fact, compared with the general election, the change in support for the Tories is statistically the same among men (down 4 points) than women (down 3 points).

This all suggests that the Conservatives have a long term problem in attracting female voters, rather than simply being a result of the Coalition’s policies alienating proportionally more women. This problem can be traced back to the early days of New Labour: in the 1970s and 1980s (with the exception of 1987) the Conservatives’ lead over Labour was considerably higher among women. In 1997 and 2001 the gender gap all but disappeared, before favouring Labour among women in the subsequent two general elections.

It is, of course, also worth remembering that dividing the electorate into just two groups is a far too simplistic analysis. In particular, the differences are acute when we consider the impact of age and gender.

Looking back to the last general election, the Conservatives real gender problem was among women aged 25-34 years. Only 27% of this group voted for them compared with 42% of men of the same age. A gap of 15 points. In every age group above 35 years, the Tories outperformed Labour, no-matter their gender.

Mark Gill is former head of political research at Ipsos-MORI and co-author with Bob Worcester, Roger Mortimore, Paul Baines of Explaining Cameron’s Coalition.

Mark will be writing a number of guest slots in the next fortnight or so during Mike Smithson’s holiday in Spain. Mike leaves tomorrow.